To most of us coming from the UK (or most places in the West), India is as culturally different as it’s possible to get. On arrival in India, our senses are bombarded with vivid colours, air that’s heavy with spices, blazing heat and a general sense of total chaos that we rarely come across in our daily westernized lives.
At first, this can all seem a little overwhelming. It is important to make some time to gather our thoughts and take the sightseeing one step at a time. Personally I think the best place to begin your journey is Southern India. This is where I began mine. Places like Goa or Kerala present you with beautiful tropical beaches and a more relaxed vibe. Here you will get a chance to become accustomed to the food and culture of India without having to tackle the mind bogglingly busy streets of the bigger cities.
When you feel ready to embark on the ‘real’ India experience, be prepared for a few other differences from the usual organised comforts of the UK. Throughout India, transport is readily available but does not run to a prescribed or orderly timetable. Be prepared to wait and wait and wait some more, as buses and trains leave when they’re ready and not before. This may sounds like a headache but it quickly becomes an enjoyable, freeing experience. Travel is not about timetables and keeping to schedules. It should be about freedom, adventure and letting things happen. Simply turn up with a good book about India, plenty of food, and you’ll be at your destination within a day or two!
On the subject of travel and transportation, there are now plenty of airlines that fly to India from airports throughout the world (example: UK – India options). In fact getting to India has never been easier – a far cry from the lengths people had to go to when India first started hitting the guidebooks in the 60s. Although it may seem obvious it’s important to remember that India is a big place. A very big place. Many backpackers forget this and don’t realise the sheer distance it is from the top of the country to the bottom. Vertically, India is more than 3,000 kilometres which feels even longer if you’re travelling by train!
On arrival in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta be prepared for very little elbow room, cows on the road and a heck of a lot of noise. It may take a little getting used to but again, once you’ve adjusted, the smells, colours, sights and sounds will captivate and enliven even the weariest traveller. Haggle in markets, try tantalising street food, explore hidden temples and hop on and off rickshaws that will wiz you around the city at breakneck speed. It won’t take long for India’s chaotic and haphazard way of life to charm you. Returning to the UK can often be more of a culture shock then arriving in India!
Hectic it may be but with a strong spiritual culture, India always has yoga and meditation retreats to take refuge in if the pace has become a little too much and you need some time out. If you want to get to higher ground, the Himalayas also offer a spiritual experience of a different kind. Take the Darjeeling Express train into the mountains for some of the most stunning views in the world, and escape to the misty tea plantations for a cuppa and a good long hike.
If you can find a festival happening during your trip they will enchant you with their rich colours, carpets of flowers, music, dancing, feasting and celebrating. They also give a real insight into the country’s religious culture, traditions and spiritual beliefs. A little background knowledge goes a long way to making you feel a part of the country you’re in.
India is a complex, diverse and challenging country to travel through, but an eye-opening, wonderful and unique one at the same time. Travel around India is guaranteed to broaden not only your horizons but your mind too. Be brave, bite the bullet and embrace all that incredible India has to offer. It’s well worth it. Well, that’s my experience at least.